One of the most common questions in health & fitness is, “How do I get a six pack?” If there’s one thing that’s more common than the question, it’s the number of answers: Everybody has their own specific belief on the exact perfect way to achieve their desired look.
Take a step back from the nuances, and you’ll see two unifying principles in six-pack success: Reduction in body fat, and hypertrophy of the core muscles. In Part 1 we will focus on the core musculature, ensuring that you have a solid foundation, should you choose to reveal it.
Let’s talk about abs: WTF do they do?
The muscles of the core serve one primary function, and it’s not sex appeal; that’s just an added bonus. The ‘core’ muscles serve to stabilize the spine against movement in all three planes of motion. We’ve identified loaded, repetitive, end-range spinal movement as a mechanism for back issues, so by strengthening ourselves to resist movement, we’re going to build benefits for the rest of our lives. While our arms and legs are jumping, throwing, leaping, and landing, the ‘core muscles’ prevent this action from pulling us apart.
The sheer variety in movement can be simplified if we consider them as occurring in three planes: The sagittal plane, the frontal plane, and the transverse plane. This might not seem that important, but it’s essential to make sure you’re training appropriately.
Focusing on exercises that resist movement, or create core stability, in these three planes, is important to create a strong, well-developed midsection, should you choose to release it.
Midsection, core, and abs all have different meanings in different circles, so let’s get on the same page considering how we train it. A definition put forth by spinal expert Dr. Stu McGill is that the “core” is basically all of the musculature that’s located between the ball and socket joints, or the shoulders and hips. This also includes muscles that cross the ball and socket joints due to distal connections: The psoas, the gluteals, lats, and pecs. They all serve to increase stability through our midsection.
Our goal should be to ensure that our midsection is stable before we begin to move our limbs, so that our spine stays protected and we can best create or absorb force. This requires a great deal of muscular work, and that’s a good thing. Let’s look at the ‘abs’ that most people think of:
Of these four core muscles, the Rectus abdominus is the muscle that gets most of the attention, and rightfully so. It’s quite literally the one that ‘pops’ when body fat percentages are low enough to reveal it. However, the external and internal oblique muscles have the opportunity to contribute a lot more, and should get their credit, too.
A Note on the Obliques:
The Internal Obliques (IOs) are often referred to as “same side rotators” because of their position. The right IO pulls you towards the right, and the left IO pulls you towards the left. At the same time, the External Obliques (EOs) are opposite side rotators. One IO and the opposite EO work together to create or prevent rotation one way or the other. This would be stability in the transverse plane.
At the same time, the IO and EO on the same side work together to stop you from tipping over sideways. This would be stability in the frontal plane.
Finally, both obliques, and the external obliques in particular, contribute to your rectus abdominus, or 6-pack muscle, preventing you from over extending or flexing your spine, which would be stability in the sagittal plane.
As a general rule, most of us walk around with our pelvis tipped forward, or anteriorly, which is known as Anterior Pelvic Tilt. To help guide our hips back to the middle, and create an even stronger “ab” contraction, we can bias our hip position to a Posterior Pelvic Tilt as much as possible during our direct core training work.
This posterior pelvic tilt places the rectus abdominus, external obliques, glute max, and hamstrings in a biomechanically friendly position to create as much tension as possible. This let’s us drive greater ab and glute involvement on our planks and deadbugs, simultaneously telling your lower back and hip flexors to relax, which is a good thing!
When in doubt, tuck that booty under, and your abs will work even more.
Now, let’s go deeper…
Just as your core muscles may be hiding under a layer of fat, there are ‘deep’ core muscles that are hiding out of your outer core muscles. These muscles, often referred to as the soft, deep, or inner core, help regulate posture, breath, and pelvis control. They’re often overlooked as integral to function, yet are essential to maximize our core strength. Let’s take a peek:
The simplest way to think about the inner, deep, soft core is like it’s a soda can. There’s a diaphragm on top, a domed pelvic floor on the bottom, a multifidus behind the spine, and a transversus abdominus that makes up the front and sides of the abdominal wall. The easiest way to engage these muscles in your core training is to integrate your breath. That’s right, we’re about to talk about breathing.
A full exhalation is perhaps the single most beneficial ‘core engagement’ tool that we have. That’s why the folks at the Postural Restoration Institute have published pieces such as The Value of Blowing Up a Balloon. The full exhale is an essential part of effective core training, and just like all skills, it’s one that needs to be practiced. Here’s an example:
The belly lift with balloon let’s you experience a full exhale, as if you’re blowing out those relighting candles on a cake. That simple exhale helps integrate the deep core, and reduce the reliance on breath holding that all too many trainees resort to when progressing exercises before they should. The next step from this belly lift is to integrate the outer core as well, using a deadbug. Let’s start simple, by keeping the balloon and not moving:
By pulling the lower back and ribcage down to the ground, you can create the same posterior pelvic tilt that engages our external obliques and inner core. The full exhalation should drive an appreciable level of core contraction, and only then, should you move onto variations that involve any movement.
Let’s make sure that we start with that variation and use it for several workouts before moving on. To support the significance of the breath during the deadbug, let’s not move on until this feels like it’s a significant level of work. I’d challenge that if you’re still not feeling a surprising level of work, then the breath isn’t a complete exhale, or you’re not in a position of posterior pelvic tilt.
Give the belly lift breath a try for 60 seconds, flip over for the deadbug, and enjoy the surge in strength that you feel. Let me know how it goes!